Woman dies in healing ritual; shaman guilty

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National Post (Canada), Apr. 25, 2003
Francine Dubé, National Post

MANITOWANING, Ont. – An Ecuadorean shaman and his son pleaded guilty yesterday to administering a noxious substance to an old native woman during a healing ceremony in which she died.

Juan Uyunkar, 49, and his son Edgar Uyunkar, 22, of the Shuar Nation in Ecuador were in Canada at the invitation of the local health centre in Wikwemikong, a remote First Nations community on Manitoulin Island between Georgian Bay and Lake Huron.

The visit by the shaman was part of a holistic healing ceremony and “cultural exchange” in the autumn of 2001. Participants were urged to drink copious amounts of a liquid brewed from tobacco and water and the Natem, or Ayahuasca plant, a hallucinogen banned in Canada.

The brew induced vomiting. Enemas containing the solution were given to participants who wanted them. An official from the health centre provided standard drugstore enema bags. Participants were told to bring their own containers in which to vomit.

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The Uyunkars said the purging removed contaminants such as bile, phlegm, salt, fats and excess sugar from the blood and also expelled parasites.

The ceremonies were so popular in Wikwemikong that the health authority paid to send Mr. Uyunkar back to Ecuador to obtain more pieces of the vine used in making the drink. Mr. Uyunkar did not know it is a banned substance in Canada, and without attempting to conceal it, was able to bring it back through customs to continue the healing ceremonies in Wikwemikong.

Jane Maiangowi, 71, began the three-day healing ceremony that led to her death on Oct. 17, 2001, with her husband, Antoine, and grandson Michael. They were told, along with 50 other participants, to stop taking any other drugs and to fast as much as possible. Ms. Maiangowi, a diabetic, stopped taking her prescribed Diamicron. She fasted.

Three large green garbage pails approximately three feet high, full of the Natem solution, stocked the room at the Amikook Seniors’ Centre where the ceremony took place the first night. There were five garbage pails the second night and eight on the third.

The Uyunkars consulted with some participants about their illnesses by telling them what their illnesses were, but no medical doctor consulted with them. No medical personnel were on site to take their pulse or blood pressure or ask them what medications they were on.

Participants drank as much as the containers they were told to bring could hold. Mrs. Maiangowi’s could hold about three cups of fluid and it was refilled repeatedly by the helpers who assisted in distributing the solution.

After the first night of vomiting, Mrs. Maiangowi became dizzy and had trouble leaving her chair. On the second night, she was so weak she had to be helped out of the building and into the family vehicle. On the third night of the ceremony, she staggered into the centre where the ceremony was being held. She began vomiting three or four hours into the ceremony. Then she began gasping for air. She said she couldn’t drink anymore. The helpers assisting the Uyunkars encouraged her to continue.

Mrs. Maiangowi failed to respond. The people around her called on Edgar Uyunkar. When she continued to fail to respond, she was carried outside. By then she appeared unconscious and was incontinent.

Juan Uyunkar came outside to check on her and ordered a rectal wash to be performed on her. A solution was prepared, but the attempt to administer it was unsuccessful.

Half an hour later, Mrs. Maiangowi was carried back inside and placed on the floor of a bathroom. Two people attempted to perform cardio-pulmonary resuscitation. About 20 minutes later, they called an ambulance. It arrived roughly 10 minutes later. Mrs. Maiangowi had no vital signs.

Ambulance personnel continued CPR, but were ordered to stop 10 minutes later by a doctor at Sudbury Hospital who was communicating with them by phone.

The healing ceremony continued throughout the night. At about dawn on Oct. 20, 2001, Juan Uyunkar closed the ceremonies at the South Bay Centre, mentioning Jane Maiangowi’s death. He told everyone not to cry or be saddened by it. He said a collision of positive and negative energies killed her.

An autopsy concluded Mrs. Maiangowi died of nicotine poisoning.

The Uyunkars have spent the last 18 months in Wikwemikong awaiting trial. Yesterday they were surrounded by supporters selling CDs of Shuar music for $20 each to help support them — they are not allowed to work in Canada. Juan Uyunkar is the father of 12 children in Ecuador. His son has a two-year-old he has not seen since infancy.

“This man is a noble man who is risking his life for what he believes in,” said Barbara Hebert, a New Yorker who made the trip because, she says, Juan Uyunkar once healed her.

Mrs. Maiangowi’s family feels quite differently. She was a respected elder who believed in holistic medicine. But her family feels she was in effect fed poison until she died. They cried in the courtroom as they heard she likely died on the floor of a bathroom as her grandson watched.

“I have a lot of anger in me just thinking that people can feed them poison and just make them think they can feel better,” testified Melanie Pitawanakwat, her grand-niece. Mrs. Maiangowi was a mother of three, grandmother of five and great-grandmother to 14.

The Uyunkars were originally charged with eight offences, including criminal negligence causing death. Their guilty plea yesterday on a reduced charge carries a maximum penalty of two years. They also pleaded guilty to trafficking in a controlled substance.

Loraine Ottley, the provincial Crown attorney in the case, urged Justice Gerald Michel of the Ontario Court of Justice to impose the maximum penalty, because the Uyunkar’s actions were “cavalier” and “reckless.”

William Trudell, Juan Uyunkar’s Toronto lawyer, said his client has essentially served 18 months of a community sentence. He asked for a three-month sentence.

Judge Michel said he will deliver his sentence today in a case he calls a “next-to-impossible one.”

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This post was last updated: Friday, October 31, 2014 at 12:05 PM, Central European Time (CET)